Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
THREE years ago, I sat on Bondi beach with the Sydney player known simply as LRT.
Laconic and quiet by nature, Lewis Roberts-Thomson has a boyish grin. He is also the sort of brave, durable footballer that the Swans routinely pump out.
We were talking about Adam Goodes' two Brownlow medals. "I reckon he'll win another," said LRT. "He's getting more tricks."
Goodes is the big athletic kid who learnt the game late but kept on learning. He is also the indigenous kid who, according to the stories I have read, became assured and confident of his indigenous identity only after he arrived at the Swans and fell under the wing of the "brothers" - Michael O'Loughlin, Troy Cook, Robbie Ahmat and Freddie Campbell.
I heard Goodes speak about his relationship with the Swans at a dinner for Brett Kirk after Kirk retired. Goodes is a believer. Like Kirk was a believer and LRT is a believer. LRT told me that day at Bondi - quite unselfconsciously - that he was proud to be part of "the Swans family". From someone else it might sound naive, but the Swans have a history of translating their beliefs into actions.
The Swans have a castle of a culture. Ted Richards, Shane Mumford and Josh Kennedy are all first-class players. They are also rejects. Ben McGlynn, cool and classy, is another reject, as is Rhyce Shaw, who these days looks like a digger from Ballarat in the 1850s and plays with the noisy aggression of one.
Sydney's great strength is its isolation from the rubbish aspects of AFL culture - it offers its players a certain security. Goodes' story is, at one level, the story of a champion being developed over time. A lot goes on at Sydney that doesn't make the news, and one of the things they do is quietly develop players.
People tend to date the Swans' culture back to Paul Roos but it goes right back to the club's earliest days in Sydney with coach Ricky Quade and captain Barry Round. The Swans were as solid as an oak tree in the '80s under Tom Hafey, notwithstanding the fact they contained one of the game's great eccentrics, Warwick Capper. Capper's decades of sustained tomfoolery in the media have dulled the memory of what an exhilarating player he was, but even with Capper - who was lost once he left Sydney and went to Brisbane - the Swans had the remorseless unity of a Roman legion about them. And they have still got it.
Last Saturday, Ryan O'Keefe played his 250th game for the Swans. I think of O'Keefe as being a typical Sydney player. Sometimes, when I watch the Swans, I think I'm watching a dozen Ryan O'Keefes all playing basically the same way - brave, efficient, committed, no-nonsense. Kieren Jack is the next from the assembly line and, although without a good right foot, he is a player who has had a leap of understanding in his ability to create play, whose vision has expanded to take in much larger parts of the field.
The Swans also have a history of excellent captains. Paul Kelly was epic - he was to Australian football what the "Timor pony, three parts thoroughbred at least" is to the poem, The Man from Snowy River. Stuart Maxfield was highly regarded, then came Kirk. In some ways, Kirk is as good as our game has got in terms of passion and awareness. Here was someone who believed from a part of himself so deep that once you had established he was for real, you had to peer inside yourself to a similar depth and see what, if anything, was there.
As I wrote in a previous column, Kirk, a Buddhist, must be the only person on the planet to know both Barry Hall and the Dali Lama. Kirk is another Swans champion to have started his career as a reject. When he retired after playing in a premiership and a losing grand final in which he was Sydney's best, Kirk taped a piece of paper to the inside of his locker upon which he had written: "IT'S ALL ABOUT THE LOVE."
But Sydney's uniformity comes at a price. Collingwood, under Mick Malthouse, believed the Swans were vulnerable by reason of their predictability, and that brings us back to the subject of Goodes. LRT is right - Goodes has kept improving. Watching him over the past two seasons, what I have noted is his craft and on-field authority. Having started his career as a ruckman, he is on the verge of finishing it as a key forward combining height, bulk and leap with unprecedented mobility.
Goodes on the lead is like seeing a train coming.
Last Sunday against Carlton, he was slightly off touch, the legacy perhaps of his mystery injury earlier in the season. Nonetheless, I'm sensing a Swans v Hawks grand final and Goodes' form will loom large in the outcome.
For Collingwood to win the flag, Travis Cloke has to at least look dangerous. Right now, he looks like a sailor back from three months' shore leave. Add to this the club's two-match suspension of Dane Swan, their best player at the moment, and the Pies look less than their old robust selves. I'm tipping that tonight the Swans will add to the momentum with which they are accelerating towards this year's finals.